After two years at the helm of Seattle Art Museum, director Derrick Cartwright is resigning effective June 30.

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After a mere two years at the helm of Seattle Art Museum, director Derrick Cartwright is resigning effective June 30, the museum announced Tuesday.

“This was a difficult decision for me, but I feel the timing is right for a leadership change at SAM,” said Cartwright in a news release. “SAM is today in a much stronger position than it was two years ago.”

Cartwright, 49, will be pursuing scholarly projects. He has been asked by the museum board to remain as a consultant to the institution until September 2012.

Cartwright’s resignation came as a surprise to many on the board, said SAM board President Maggie Walker.

“It was not something that everybody was wildly anticipating,” she said. “He sent us a letter of resignation over the weekend and here we are.”

Walker said she had several conversations with Cartwright. “He just told us he’s ready for a break and he wants to focus on some of his own personal art passions,” Walker said. “It really has been a tough job and he has worked extraordinarily hard. He has been here practically every day of the last year.”

Walker praised Cartwright for having been a “terrific ambassador to the community for us” and for leaving the museum “in great shape after a hard two years.”

She declined to go into further detail over the reasons for the resignation, saying “this is really Derrick’s choice.”

Cartwright said Tuesday the museum director’s position, like those of others leading arts organizations in these difficult economic times, is a very hard job.

“This job required a 100 percent, 24-hours-a-day commitment to solving problems,” he said. “And I think we did solve a bunch of problems. … We managed to serve the people of Seattle in a way that very few museums could, facing the same circumstances.

“Having brought this great museum to a point of stability, I’m eager to think about myself a little bit and what I want to do,” he said.

Cartwright intends to spend more time with his family, as well as pursue his art-history passions. He plans to stay in Seattle and remains a fan of the museum. “I truly admire SAM and the role it plays in this community,” he said.

Formerly executive director of the San Diego Museum of Art, Cartwright arrived at SAM in 2009, succeeding Mimi Gates, who retired after 15 years as director.

He faced immediate economic challenges.

Like most arts institutions nationwide, SAM had been hard-hit by the recession. Its endowment had declined and its budget and staff had been trimmed. It needed to find new tenants for the space in its downtown building formerly held by Washington Mutual after the bank was sold to JPMorgan Chase, which did not assume WaMu’s lease.

Cartwright oversaw the museum’s closing for two weeks this year in order to save money, along with pay cuts for several top administrators — including himself.

But Cartwright was also at the helm for brighter economic news. Nordstrom agreed to lease the office space vacated by WaMu. And the highly successful Picasso show at SAM this past fall and winter served as a win for the museum at a time when it very much needed one.

“Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris,” which ran October-January, drew more than 405,000 people and was the museum’s most-attended exhibition since it moved to its downtown location from Volunteer Park in 1991. In SAM’s history, only the 1978 King Tut exhibition, held at Seattle Center, ranked higher in attendance.

In large part due to the Picasso show, museum membership shot up to more than 48,000 — an all-time SAM high and in the top 10 for museum memberships nationwide.

The museum projects it will get about 600,000 visitors downtown by the end of its fiscal year June 30.

Walker, the board president, and Board Chairman Charles Wright will provide executive oversight while the board searches for a new director.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272